Premenstrual Syndrome: Between Myth and Scarecrow

By Layal Kharoubi

“A woman can’t understand herself, do you think you can?” a phrase with which the biology professor concluded the lesson on the menstrual cycle in third high school year, based on hormonal arguments, which I made a note of deep down in my consciousness at that time, while my companions wrote it down, perhaps on their notebooks as one of the margins of the course. When I graduated from high school, the phrase stuck not only in my consciousness but also in my ears, and I went back to it a lot. How could I not when this is the stereotypical sentence for framing a woman’s relationship with herself and the relationship of this self with its surroundings.

In his book “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the most famous Roman scholar and historian, wrote about menstruous woman: “the brightness of mirrors are dimmed by reflecting her, the edge of iron is dulled, the brightness of ivory, bee hives die.” Some might say that this description was buried alongside various ancient myths and practices that dealt with the menstrual cycle as an impurity of women which affects the mind and soul, but the simplest examples undermine this ruling. Civilization has lapsed what is called spiritual abomination in some communities, while the physiological thread of discrimination against women has been retained. 

The menstrual cycle, that vital function in a woman’s body, and the vital engine of the human train, represents the basis in the inferior view of the female entity, as the woman is constantly portrayed as a hormonal being who loses her psychological and mental balance for one week per month, or PMS as modern science calls it, which is “a wide variety of signs and symptoms, including mood swings, tender breasts, food cravings, fatigue, irritability and depression. It’s estimated that as many as 3 of every 4 menstruating women have experienced some form of premenstrual syndrome” according to the Mayo Clinic medical website.

The menstrual cycle, that vital function in a woman’s body, and the vital engine of the human train, represents the basis in the inferior view of the female entity.

Premenstrual syndrome exists in women’s minds, not their bodies?

Challenging the medical and research mainstream, Robyn Stein DeLuca, PhD, research assistant professor in the department of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York, has opened a window in a millennia-old wall with her 2017 book “The Hormone Myth: How Junk Science, Gender Politics, and Lies About PMS Keep Women Down.” In this book, Stein delved into the layers of women’s consciousness – formed during their journey from childhood to puberty and then adulthood – about social, cultural, media and medical convictions that put her in conflict with her hormones. “Growing up, when we become women, we are told in books, on the internet and in magazines that PMS is out there. We internalize this idea that our bodies must be faulty.” A psychosocial narrative that surrounded premenstrual syndrome and threw it into an illusion box, with the exception of cases that Stein admitted to exist, but which do not exceed 8% of women. Stein did not blame the medical system and society alone, she also blamed some women: Don’t say I don’t want to do this now, you’ll lose your good standing, but if you say it’s premenstrual syndrome, it’s your ticket out of jail, it’s a woman’s excuse when she needs a break.”

Stein’s theory fueled the existing medical debate regarding premenstrual syndrome. In 2012, the universities of Toronto, Otago, Wellington, and Dilhouse in Canada conducted forty-one studies on women’s mood swings in line with menstrual cycles and concluded that only one study out of six proved a link between mood changes and the premenstrual period. A study that the medical community at the time received with great suspicion, because it separated the physical symptoms of the hormone cycle and the psychological effects, and the methodology used was not accurate, as the studies covered one menstrual cycle for each woman, and the women were aware of the subject of research according to NHS Medical Website.

Only one study out of six demonstrated associations between mood changes and the premenstrual period

Science hasn’t had its last word yet?

“The proportion of hormones in the human body in general is not fixed and is governed by a mutual influence relationship in both directions with psychological and physiological factors,” says Dr. Reda Khalaf, a specialist in gynecology, and he adds, “The main suspects are the hormones estrogen and progesterone, whose monthly cyclical movement is linked to a set of physical and psychological symptoms that affect women for a period ranging between four and six days.” Regarding the percentage of women who suffer from PMS and the severity of symptoms, Dr. Khalaf points out, “As gynecologists, we have experienced hundreds of cases clinically. We can say that there are women who may not experience any of the premenstrual symptoms, and there are women whose symptoms and severity vary between one cycle and another, and between one life stage and another.” PMS is not exceptional in a woman’s life except in rare cases known medically as PMDD (Premenstrual Diaphonic disorders), which require medical examination and treatment.”

There are women who may not experience any of the premenstrual symptoms, and there are women whose symptoms and severity vary between one cycle and another, and between one life stage and another.

Premenstrual syndrome, then, is a wide field in which the sciences of gynecology, hormones, psychology, and social psychology are intertwined. The founding field of medical research on this monthly period was psychological, as doctors in the mid-nineteenth century associated “hysteria” and mental disorders with menstruation. The term premenstrual syndrome was not popularized until the fifties of the last century.

Regarding the controversial link between the two parts of physiology and psychology, the psychologist Benin Younes says: “There are some psychological and physical factors that women go through that make them more susceptible to depression and mood swings than men. When we say psychological disorders, we must go back to childhood and adolescence when the girl was forming an image of herself as lacking because she did not have a penis, but rather blood comes out from her amputated organ, and this shock appears in the form of psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression, or sudden crying spells.” Regarding the psycho-sociological aspect of this issue, Younes notes that “women are more able and daring to express their suffering and visit psychiatric clinics than men who tend to unload their repressions in other ways such as alcohol, drug addiction, or exercise, while society shames crying and weakness.”

Myth vs. Scarecrow

Premenstrual syndrome stands at the border between myth and scarecrow, as for women, according to the indicators of social progress in their societies, their sense of discrimination varies, and the phrase “you must be on your period” remains across all societies and cultures, and women continue to hear it in the simplest of situations.

The last word to decide on this controversial subject, perhaps, will not come from a research institution or from a book, but rather from the will of the woman herself, through reconciliation with her body, following a healthy lifestyle, finding social strength, and also removing menstruation from the taboo corner. It is a vital indicator that the reproductive system is working well, just like a heartbeat or a breathing lung, it is not an intimate privacy that requires tons of curtains.

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